Through Great Endurance
“But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” The pastor chose this verse from Matthew 24:13 as the text for the sermon at my mother’s funeral. She had lived 99 years, six months, and two days. She had been a hard-working farmer’s wife, the mother of four children, care-giver for her elderly parents, a good neighbor, an active participant in the community, and a faithful member of her congregation. What made it possible for her to endure to the end? What keeps any of us going especially when life gets difficult? What gives us the courage to persevere even when faced with fears and sorrows?
Sometimes we endure, persevere out of a sense of duty. We feel an obligation because of the position we have or because of the promises we have made. Parents, for example, care for their children, make sure they are clothed and fed, help them with their homework, take them to the doctor. It’s what parents do. Spouses stick with one another through difficult times when they might be tempted to walk away; they endure because of the promises they have made to each other. At work people keep plugging away because they have agreed to do the job. It’s their duty.
Habit can also help us keep going in the face of challenges. It was my mother’s habit to go to church every Sunday for worship and Bible study. For many years, she barely gave it a thought when every Tuesday she visited her friends and relatives in the nursing homes or when she packed herself up on Thursdays to go quilting with the Lydia Circle. Without well-established habits, we easily talk ourselves out of doing what needs to be done, taking the path of least resistance.
We might also be motivated to endure because of gratitude. We keep visiting an elderly teacher because we are thankful for the interest she took in us as a child. We work hard for our boss because he gave us a chance when we really needed a job. We care for our elderly parents because we know all that they have given to us over the years. We involve ourselves in service projects because we are grateful that someone was there for us when we had need.
Duty, habit, and gratitude can all help us endure, but our most powerful and lasting resource for endurance is love. I think of Len who comes twice a day to the nursing home to be with his wife of 62 years. His love for her is evident in his eyes and his voice even though she can no longer respond as she once did. Love keeps parents standing with their troubled son as he tries to find his way into adulthood. Love—of students and subject—motivates the teacher to go back to the classroom each year.
Strangely, though, it is not our sense of duty, our well-honed habits, our deep gratitude or even our unconditional love that makes it possible for us to endure even to the end. Rather, our endurance is a gift of God’s grace. God has endured with us. God has refused to give up on us. God loves us to the end. (to top of page)
In his book, In Pursuit of the Great White Rabbit, Edward Hays tells the story of a young seeker who visits a wise old hermit. While they are sitting on the front porch, the old man’s dog sees a big white rabbit and begins running after him, barking loudly. Soon other dogs are attracted by the barking and join in the chase. The commotion goes on as the dogs run and bark, but as time passes, one by one the other dogs fall away.
“Why is it,” asked the young seeker, “that all the other dogs have given up and your dog is the only one still running?”
“Ah,” said the wise old man, “my dog is the only one that actually saw the rabbit.”
In the incarnation, in God’s coming in the flesh, we get a glimpse of the heart of God. We have “seen the rabbit.” That glimpse draws us on and helps us endure. But even more than seeing the heart of God, we begin to feel God’s heartbeat. The English word courage is rooted in the Latin word for heart—cor. To have courage is a matter of heart. Courage, like endurance, is not something we muster up; rather it is God’s gift to us. In baptism, a bit of God’s own love is implanted by the Spirit in our hearts. By God’s grace, at least from time to time, our hearts begin to beat in the same rhythm as God’s. That gives us courage to go on even in the face of difficulties and dangers.
I am told that in physics there is a principle called attunement. It works like this: If two pendulums are swinging in different directions, as they are brought closer together, they begin to swing together; or if two electrical currents traveling parallel to one another are brought close together, they begin to move in the same wave length. We might say that the closer we come to the heart of God, the more our heart will beat in the same rhythm as God’s, the more our love will be like God’s, the more we will share in God’s endurance and courage.
God desires to be close to us. Our part in receiving God’s gifts of endurance and courage—in unwrapping these gifts—is to put ourselves in those places where God is. Of course, God is everywhere, but there are places and times when we realize God is especially accessible to us. Those times and places may vary from person to person. I offer these suggestions: (to top of page)
Pay attention to when and where you have a sense of God’s presence. Do you sense God’s presence in nature? While working in your garden? While listening to music? In church? In the midst of creative activity? In conversations with others? Notice those times and places when you are especially aware of God with you. Savor those moments. Then try to make room in your life to be in those places where God’s heart seems most accessible to you.
Gather with God’s people. Jesus has promised to be present whenever even two or three are gathered in Christ’s name. We can be sure that God is there in the hearts of our sisters and brothers in the faith. We can listen to God’s heartbeat in them as we worship, study, and serve together. We encourage each other—give each other courage—when we get glimpses of God at work in our Christian communities. When we gather at Holy Communion, God comes especially close to us. “This is my body. This is my blood.” God’s own self becomes part of us.
Be with the word. We hear God’s word read and proclaimed in worship. We study the word alone and with others. We also seek to let the word go deeply into our hearts. Some years ago Sister Joan Chittister published a series of psalm journals in which she invited her readers to spend an entire week with just one verse of a psalm. We were asked to read the verse at least once each day, to think about it, to reflect on in, to journal about it, to listen to what others had to say about it.
The result was that by the end of the week we had learned the verse by heart. We could recite it, but even more, it had found a way into our hearts so that it began to shape us and to find expression in our daily lives. Being with the word is not so much about our mastering the material; rather it is about allowing the word to master us.
Cultivate silence and solitude. Even a person who by nature desires time alone and treasures silence may find it challenging to find time and space to be still. Amid the noise and activities of our lives, we may have difficulty hearing God’s heartbeat or our own. The gospel writers tell us that even Jesus regularly went away to a quiet place to commune with God. (to top of page)
Be present with those in our world who have the greatest need. Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, or welcome the stranger, we find ourselves serving Jesus. When we come close to those who are most marginalized in our world, we are miraculously touched by Christ. There is where we see the heart of God.
You may have other suggestions for coming closer to God’s heart and for becoming more attuned to God’s love. And you may be encouraged to hear the suggestions and experiences of others in your conversations and discussions. (to top of page)
THE HEART OF GOD
On those days when our courage wanes or our endurance wears thin, my mother’s witness may be helpful. It’s not really about us. It’s about God.
As my mother approached the end of her earthly life, her physical and mental capacities diminished little by little. When she went into an assisted-living facility and then into the attached health-care unit, she lamented that she could no longer do anything for anybody. The way she had lived her Christian life—doing and serving—was no longer possible for her. After a while she could no longer go to church or Bible class. The combination of cataracts on her eyes and increasing dementia made it impossible for her to make sense when she tried to read her Bible or devotional books.
For a while she could still join in singing old familiar hymns and pray along with prayers she knew by heart—“Now I lay me down to sleep…” Luther’s morning and evening prayers, and the Lord’s Prayer. But finally, at the very end she could not respond; she only slept. Still she endured to the end—not by her own will power but because she was held in the heart of God who endured with her to the end.
E. Louise Williams is executive director emeritus of the Lutheran Deaconess Association (LDA). She is also part-time adjunct assistant professor of theology at Valparaiso University. She often serves as spiritual director, retreat leader, speaker, and writer.